Camden Community Radio - Argy Bargey on London's Canals

Freddy Chick I am standing on a bend on the Regent's Canal near Royal College Street. The water is still, the trees are green, and there's couple of ducks dabbling around picking up sticks for their nests on the opposite bank. But a few miles down the canal towards Islington things are not so tranquil. Tensions have flared between boaters and local residents who are complaining about increased noise and wood smoke coming from the canal.

Trouble has led the London Assembly to launch an investigation. Its aims are to examine how the canals are used throughout London and suggest changes that could help reduce tension as an ever increasing number of people are attracted to the idyllic liveaboard lifestyle.

The investigation is being led by London Assembly Member Jenny Jones. I spoke to her to find out more.

Jenny Jones What we've seen over the past decade or so, well longer really, is that house prices in London are rising all the time. It becomes harder and harder for people who are coming into London - and our population is increasing - it becomes harder for them to buy a property or even rent a property. So the canals are starting to look like very reasonably priced ways to actually live in London without enormous financial burdens and that means there is more and more pressure on the canals, on moorings, on canal facilities and so it's not only canalside properties' residents who are seeing more air pollution, more noise pollution; it is also boaters themselves, who are finding it is very difficult to find a mooring and very difficult to find facilities that aren't overused.

Freddy Chick So the types of solutions or changes you are considering are...?

Jenny Jones It's difficult at the moment to say what the solutions might be because of course we are taking a lot of submissions, a lot of of evidence from people and we have to put that all together before we can see our way forward. But I would imagine we will be making recommendations to all sorts of levels of government for example we might even suggest some legislation changes to the government; we will certainly probably suggest some small solutions to the councils along the canal boroughs and also probably recommendations to boaters themselves because clearly everybody has to play their part and quite honestly the canal is such a beautiful place and it is a lovely place to live so we should be finding a solution to this potential overcrowding.

Freddy Chick After speaking to Jenny Jones I dug around more into the investigation online. I found that a group called the Friends of the Regent's Canal had posted an open letter writing back to Jenny about the issues on their website. It was written by Ian Shacklock, the man who runs the group. From his letter I could tell that he was a man who cared a lot and knew a lot about the canal. We met in Regents Park and I began by asking him how big a problem he thought the overcrowding was.

Ian Shacklock This has become of one the biggest problems. If you had asked me two years ago then I would have said that the biggest problem was cycling conflicts, you know, competing for space. I've also had lots of problems with property developers - losing historic buildings and public access; that's an ongoing worry. But this is worrying me more than anything else at the moment because we are dealing with people's homes.

Freddy Chick So are there any changes that you would like to see or if any what would you like to see?

Ian Shacklock I would like to see a redistribution of available mooring spaces. First of all, I did write back and I made some recommendations and I thought there ought to be an understanding of how we got to this situation. It didn't happen overnight, it has taken twenty years to get from a problem where no-one complained to a situation now where people are at each others throats several times a day and that happened because the situation was just neglected

Freddy Chick and who would you blame?

Ian Shacklock Hmm. Several sides actually. I suppose you could start with the authorities. The Canal and River Trust (which was British Waterways) were continuing to issue licences.

Freddy Chick I should stop here to explain that the CRT is the charity in charge of managing the 2000 miles of canals and inland waterways in Britain including all issues arising from narrowboats.

Ian Shacklock They were collecting money for licences and nobody broke any rules as such but they didn't keep tabs on what happened next and they were under no obligation to. So you could sell a licence say to somebody who perhaps bought a boat in the Midlands, they would sail it down to London and live in London. That's completely within the rules of licensing but nobody was keeping tabs on what the long term effect of that was - and now we are. I'm very worried actually because the reason I got involved at the level I'm at is that this could threaten boating because they are under the spotlight and they are going to have to change habits in certain ways and if it's not handled properly, if boaters are not given a chance to react quickly they could be, sort of, cleansed out of the area.

Freddy Chick So a redistribution, or not a restribution outside the edges of London say?

Ian Shacklock No, no, not at all but I think we ought to identify spots that currently may not have mooring rings, that are less on people's doorsteps let's examine where we could spread things more thinly to

Freddy Chick Is anything that you don't want to see? any changes that you wouldn't want to see?

Ian Shacklock Well, I wouldn't want to see, for example, a ban on all sorts of boats especially the old vintage ones, the coal boats. Now they are about 50 or 60 years old and that would be like cleansing a part of history. I think we need to be realistic. We don't want a one-size-fits-all solution; there could be pockets of Islington and London where we say it has to be smoke free; but there might be other areas where we might be a bit more liberal. It's down to the density of the people affected

Freddy Chick So in your sort of dream, your ideal world, what is the balance of boats on the canal? How to do picture that?

Ian Shacklock We have a rich diversity at the moment. We have the leisure boaters and we have the people who work on boats; people who just live on boats but don't travel very far; and we have people who serve other boats. It's quite a wide community and I wouldn't want to see it broken up to the point that it was just the rich or just the poor and no-one in between. I would want people to continue to co-exist

Freddy Chick Hearing what Jenny and Ian had to say about the overcrowding it seemed to me that I should finish by speaking to one of London's boaters themselves. After all they are the ones who will have to bear the brunt of any changes. Pete lives with his family on a narrowboat at Cumberland Basin, just up river (or should that be up canal?) from Camden Locks I asked him what changes he would like to see.

Boater Pete I'd have said that to have more moorings in London would be a great idea really. There's a lot of people who would love to live on the canal; there's lot of people waiting to get a mooring in London. There's a definite shortage

Freddy Chick So have you noticed crowding in recent years?

Boater Pete I wouldn't say it's crowded because you've only got a specific number of places where you can actually moor. I know lots of people end up trying to find a mooring outside London; one because of the cost of inside London moorings and secondly because there just aren't enough moorings. If you think about it, when the canal was a working item there were work boats everywhere and why shouldn't it be like that now?

Freddy Chick Jenny Jones' investigation is ongoing and she is keen to hear from you if you feel strongly about the canal in your area. To get in touch visit the London Assembly website at

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